For a footballer who has been voted the best player in the Bundesliga in one season and the Premier League in two more, Kevin De Bruyne could be forgiven for feeling a bit undervalued and underappreciated. Not by his peers, however, but by his family. It transpires he is not even the most popular player in the De Bruyne household.
His seven-year-old son, Mason, had a kickabout on the Etihad Stadium pitch with his favourite footballer as Manchester City celebrated their Premier League title win. It wasn’t his father. He prefers the man with 52 goals, Erling Haaland, to the one with 28 assists, his dad. "It is not a problem,” said De Bruyne. “All three children have long hair. Erling is a superstar. I see that with the kids at [their] school too. They all have hair like that. It's funny. My children have all become interested in football this year. They attend more games. They are also starting to play football themselves. My eldest in particular is starting to realise a little more what is going on. He wants to come to games more. He came to see Bayern. He begins to experience and enjoy it more. As long as they like it, it's okay."
All of which was a characteristically unflustered response. De Bruyne’s first Champions League final ended abruptly when he was clattered by Antonio Rudiger, leaving him with a broken nose and fractured eye socket. Another might have talked of revenge or lucklessness. Not De Bruyne. “I don't look at what happened two years ago with bad feelings. You go on, you move on,” he said.
It is why he has been City’s down-to-earth superstar. Asked what is different from 2021, he gave a grounded response. “I have a daughter now. So that’s a change,” he said. He marked their FA Cup win last weekend by going home, looking after his children for a couple of days and playing football and games with them. “My wife had to do some stuff somewhere else,” he shrugged. Winning the Champions League, he smiled, would be a relief because he would no longer have to face questions if his career was complete without it. He can be eminently reasonable about it. “I always want to give the best Kevin on the field,” he rationalised. “I know that sometimes things go less and sometimes better. But as I say: we want to win everything, but it is also not possible to win everything.”
And yet, irritating and repetitive as some of the questions may be, there is a point. For an astonishingly successful player, arguably the finest in both City and Belgium’s greatest teams, De Bruyne has been denied the very biggest prizes. Belgium’s golden generation almost certainly won’t win anything now, their disastrous World Cup seeming to bring an era to an end.
Meanwhile De Bruyne may now be the best footballer of his generation who has not won the Champions League. Of the top 10 finishers in last year’s Ballon d’Or voting, seven have done it. There is plenty of time for Kylian Mbappe and Haaland, still both in their early twenties. De Bruyne turns 32 this month. He is the exception. He often is: the 2021 top 10 consisted of seven Champions League winners, Mbappe, Gianluigi Donnarumma, named player of the tournament in Euro 2020, and De Bruyne.
The Belgian can be animated when arguing with Pep Guardiola during games – “moments between competitive persons… I don’t see a problem with that” – but his overall outlook is rather calmer. “I’m happy with the way that I am,” he said. “Obviously I know it will help whatever people say about me and the team. It doesn’t put me in bad or good places. I’ve been here eight years and it’s been incredible. Could I come here and think about all the amount of games and trophies we would win in eight years? Probably not.”
That sense of perspective might be an asset. De Bruyne has won the Premier League five times in six seasons. He is not about to say it is too many, but there is a routine feel to it. He recognises it is a strange kind of normal. “I think that we are getting a bit used to the success that we are experiencing now,” he said. “Maybe that's a bit of a pity. But I think, eventually when my career is over, there will be times when I look back on things that have been accomplished.”
Which is a lengthy list. But the immediate focus is on what could be accomplished. De Bruyne is the sole survivor of City’s first Champions League semi-final, under Manuel Pellegrini in 2016. Seven years on, he is the constant, Haaland the exciting newcomer who has captured his children’s imagination. But perhaps a Haaland winner in the Champions League final would suit both Mason and Kevin de Bruyne.